We’re all doing our best

[January 2013] Two days ago, it was announced that Dan Brown’s next novel will be coming out in May. Immediately the wailing and the gnashing of teeth started. Is there another author, besides perhaps Stephanie Meyer, whose mere name incites such vitriol?

I’m going to stick my neck out here: I’ll buy Inferno, and I’ll read it. I might even enjoy it. I thought the uproar over The Da Vinci Code (hereafter: DVC) was unwarranted, even though I think Angels & Demons is a better book. DVC sold a gajillion copies, mostly on the strength of the controversy surrounding the plot. Brown might not have seen it coming, but if he did, kudos to him for finding a way to put his name on the map. DVC was his fourth book, not his first. He didn’t burst onto the scene with it. As they say, he paid his dues.

Dan Brown will never win a literary prize for his writing. However, he isn’t a horrible writer. He managed to sell his first few novels based on their individual strengths, and the first two are nothing like his Langdon novels. I enjoy his books in the same way that I like those by Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, Stieg Larsson and John Grisham. None of these authors have what you might call literary chops. Their skill at characterization is limited, and their phrasing can be clunky. However, they write entertaining, thrilling books. I always came away from a Michael Crichton book feeling like I’d learned something, both about the subject matter and about the craft of telling a suspenseful story. Cussler’s books are pulp adventures with stock characters who never change from one novel to the next and totally unbelievable scenarios, but they were fun.

No one, I believe, sets out to write poorly. Some writers are more adept than others, and some have strengths in certain areas and weaknesses in others. I think that if DVC had been a blip in the pan, if it had hit the top ten list for a week or two and then faded away, people wouldn’t get so up in arms when Brown’s next book was announced. The fact that it was a bestseller for many months and earned the guy a king’s ransom in royalties is unpalatable to some, mostly because of his obvious shortcomings as a writer. But, good God, Fifty Shades of whatever blocked off the top of the bestseller list for weeks, simply because the books contain tawdry and titillating scenes in novels that come from a major publisher. Brown’s books take readers to places they might never otherwise experience (Paris, Zurich, Rome) and shine a light on the work of artists (Bernini, Dante, Da Vinci), even if some liberties are taken. More importantly, they make readers want to know what happens next.

As writers, we’re all doing the best that we can. Many are getting better as the years go by. To be sure, there are writers who end up “phoning it in” later in their careers, either metaphorically (Robert B. Parker’s last few novels feel somewhat perfunctory) or literally (Hey, buddy, I have an idea for a new book — how about you write it and I put my name on the cover?), but I think that Dan Brown sits down at his word processor and does his level best to come up with a compelling and gripping plot each time. He may be mining similar ground in his Langdon novels, and perhaps even hoping to stir up similar kinds of controversy, but I don’t remember too many people getting up in arms about his book based on a far-reaching conspiracy within the Vatican. It was an entertaining thriller in a genre that has been around for a long time, and I expect Inferno will be much the same. Nothing wrong with that.

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